It took all morning to complete the gentle turn around the bend in the stream. They had to walk their horses slowly through the rocks and briars of the grasslands, and sometimes they had to walk through the stream itself. The gully, which had been shrinking by the hour on both sides, now joined the flat grasslands, and the stream meandered across the surface of that land until, far in the distance, it ran into a great river. They could see a village along the riverbank, and Wlvn nudged his horse to a trot. He dragged Number Two along with him. Wlkn came at a little slower pace with two horses in tow, but by around three in the afternoon they came within sight of the houses. The village looked like the villages of their people apart from it being out in the open, not surrounded by trees, and yet one thing was very different about this village by the river. This village looked to have a stockade, like a little fort built at the back of the houses, right up against the water.
“Looks deserted.” Wlkn commented as they slowed again to a walk.
Wlvn nodded. “Deserted for some time,” he said, as he examined the farm fields. They were grown over with weeds like they had not been planted in several years.
“Maybe the Lord of All sent his helpers to burn them out,” Wlkn suggested.
Wlvn shook his head this time. “The buildings are run down, but still standing, not burnt. Besides, the Lord of All is not Lord of as much as he says. The arm of that Titanic monstrosity does not reach this far.” Wlvn had to shiver just thinking about that giant.
“So! There is land beyond the center of the universe.” Wlkn grinned, knowing for certain something that had long been a debate among the villagers. “The Lord can’t reach us here.” He looked happy for a second.
“I didn’t say that,” Wlvn said, as he kicked Thred again to a trot and only stopped and dismounted when they came up alongside the first hut. Sure enough, there were no fires, and no sign of people at all, but there were signs of wreckage. It looked like some kind of battle had been fought there.
“What happened here?” Wlkn asked.
Again, Wlvn did not answer right away as both the Princess and Diogenes came up into his mind and directed his eyes. He found a spear at his feet, under a tarp of some kind, with golden hairs, animal hairs, still attached to the stone tip as if glued there by blood. Just inside a big, ragged hole in the wall of one hut, in a place where the rain could not wash it away, there were more golden hairs.
“Hello?” Wlkn called out, just in case.
Wlvn walked up to the fort. The stockade had been broken through in several places, like with a battering ram, or something very heavy that got applied with great force. If he did not know better, he imagined some person might have thrown himself against the wall until he made the hole, but then he supposed even the Gott-Druk were not that strong.
“Hello?” Wlkn called again. He dismounted but held his reigns tight, no doubt thinking of the need for a quick getaway.
Wlvn dropped the reigns of his horses and stepped through one of the holes in the stockade wall. “Hello?” He echoed Wlkn. “If anyone is here, please come out. We will not hurt you.”
“So you say.” A voice responded and both Wlvn and Wlkn got startled to hear a response. Wlkn took a couple of steps back in case he had to run. The voice came from inside the hut at the back of the stockade, but no one could be seen.
“You see? I have no weapons in my hand. I only wish to talk, to ask what happened here.”
“I see weapons at your back. Dark elf, by the look of them. What are you, a Hobgob?”
“Just a boy and an old man,” Wlkn said as he stepped up beside Wlvn, having decided that standing next to the one with weapons might be the safer course. “We seek only shelter for the night and mean you no harm.” With that, Wlkn decided some show of their peaceful intent was due, and he began to gather up some lumber with the idea of making a fire while he thought, too bad they had nothing to eat. Of course, both he and Wlvn were well used to going without food for a day or two.
“Oh, no!” A head popped out of a window in the hut. It had a bulbous nose, a long brown beard that hung from the window almost to the ground, and beady little eyes that nevertheless looked old and wise and much older than Wlkn. “It isn’t safe here,” the face said. “Especially not at night. Night is when they come. You will bring them back here. They will come for you. It isn’t safe.” The head withdrew, back into the dark shadows of the hut.
“Bain!” The name, burst from Wlvn’s lips before he could stop it. The face in the window immediately popped out once with terribly wide eyes and withdrew again. The little one looked utterly shocked to hear that name, of all names.
“Bain?” Wlvn questioned himself, having no idea where that name came from, but it sounded right, even if it did not sound right at the same time. “But you can’t be Bain. You are far too young,” Wlvn concluded.
“How do you know that?” The voice fairly shouted from the hut, but the face stayed hidden. “How can you possibly know that?”
“Come out.” Wlvn shouted right back. “Let me look at you.” Something clicked in Wlvn’s psyche, and he knew this was one creature over which he had some say. The creature, a dwarf of sorts, came out of the door like his Lord had called him. He trembled, just like Wlkn trembled in the face of the Alfader. Wlkn took one look at the dwarf and dropped every stick of wood. This creature, clearly not human, made Wlkn tremble, too. “Your name?” Wlvn had it on the tip of his tongue, but he could not quite verbalize it.
“Badl,” the dwarf said, and he removed his hat in Wlvn’s presence because he felt it was appropriate.
“Badl. Of course. You must be Bain’s—”
“—Son. Yes, your worship, your honor, sir.”
“What the…?” Wlkn watched the exchange between the boy and this spirit of the Earth, and he decided then and there what had been brewing in the back of his mind all day; that this all actually had to be a dream and he was safe in his hut sleeping, or maybe he died, only he did not feel dead.
“You must be the god my dad told me about, but he said you were a woman.” Badl tried to make sense of what he felt. “But then he did say you were a man when you changed him, you know, from a regular imp to a gnome.
“I suppose I was, Badl.” Wlvn got that much out before he froze. Everyone looked up as they heard the distant sound of wailing, like a baby’s cry. The sun looked ready to set, and Badl had a quick look as if checking the time before he spoke. It felt near five.
“Lord, you have to get out of here. The night creatures, they will come like they came before. All they do is eat, and they are fast and strong and nearly impossible to kill, and…”
“What are night creatures?” Wlkn got back to his questions and looked at Wlvn. He decided that even if this was all a dream, he did not want it to turn into a complete nightmare if he could help it.
“I don’t know, except they have golden fur.”
“Mostly. Some are black and motley colored.” Badl started to answer before he shook his head and started again. “You have to get out. They hunt and eat, and never give up. They rest in the day under the shade but hunt as soon as the night comes.”
“Loki’s guardians.” Wlvn suddenly understood and put two and two together. “How long have they been walking the perimeter of the forest?” he asked.
“Since the days we started with horses and riders,” Wlvn concluded.
“Maybe we can fix the barricade.” Wlkn tried to be practical. He still did not know what night creatures were, but he did not like the sound of them. “Loki?” he wondered.
“No good.” Badl started to whine. “The men made it as strong as they could. Look, they used whole trees, but the night creatures busted through anyway. They just kept hurling themselves against the wall until they finally broke in. All those women and children.” Badl looked ready to cry.
“Bring the horses inside the barricade,” Wlvn told Wlkn, and the old man nodded. It was something to do to keep his mind off night creatures that he never saw and hoped he never would.
“Lord, lord!” Badl seemed about to shred his hat when Wlvn put his hand on the dwarf’s shoulder.
“It will be alright,” he said, and he stepped into the hut to look out the back window, except the back wall had no window. The hut had literally been built right up to the water and framed without an opening, so in order to see, he had to kick hard against the logs of the hut until they started to give way. “Help me,” he said, and Badl helped until the back wall opened up in a large gap. Several logs collapsed and Wlvn only looked up once to be sure the roof would not fall on his head. He looked across the river and saw the most beautiful bird he ever saw fly down on to the water, near the far bank. It appeared to look right at him, but Wlvn assumed it could not really be looking at him, being a poor, dumb beast. It began to sing an alluring birdsong that sounded as lovely as the creature itself, and it climbed carefully to the bank. With one more look back in Wlvn’s direction, it took again to the air and flew off in a southwesterly direction. Wlvn watched it for a time before voices drew him back into the stockade.
MONDAY Chapter 4
They gain a dwarf to go on the journey once they convince him the horses are not for eating. And they find a lovely lady who will feed them. Until Monday, Happy Reading